'The visible lovers. At the approach to the oasis, Apollo and Venus materialize in empty space. By grace of the desert flower, they rise into view from the aridity of the rock.' Salvador Dalí
With a sophisticated manipulation of form and imagery that distinguishes the artist's most successful compositions, Oasis presents an iconic dreamscape with the inimitable sense of mystery particular to Dalí's mature works. He painted the current work as part of a series of three paintings, commissioned by William Lightfoot Schultz, the first owner of this work, focused on classical figures amid desert landscapes (Robert Descharnes & Gilles Néret, op. cit., p. 395). The three works from the series were subsequently exhibited at Knoedler & Co. in New York in 1946, shortly after they were painted. Oasis presents subtle suggestions of form and plays with illusory perceptions that characterise Dalí's fully-developed masterworks, paintings such as Paysage avec jeune fille sautant à la corde (fig. 1).
Dalí executed Oasis at the height of his successful years in New York City. After having fled Paris with his wife Gala in 1940, Dalí assumed a central role amid the society of European Surrealists that had coalesced in New York at the outbreak of World War II. The artist later described this transition, 'I needed, in fact, immediately to get away from the blind and tumultuous collective jostlings of history, otherwise the antique and half-divine embryo of my originality would risk suffering injury and dying before birth in the degrading circumstances of a philosophic miscarriage occurring on the very sidewalks of anecdote. No, I am not of those who make children by halves. Ritual first and foremost! Already I am concerning myself with its future, with the sheets and the pillow of its cradle. I had to return to America to make fresh money for Gala, him and myself' (quoted in Robert Descharnes & Gilles Néret, op. cit., p. 342).
During this period, the artist was championing his paranoiac-critical method - his term for the controlled use of freely-associated imagery and subjects derived from self-induced hallucinations. There is a dinstinction to be drawn between this method and the Automatism of many of his fellow surrealists. Whereas Automatism relies on unreflecting response to stimuli and chance occurrence, Dalí's approach to the irrational was highly planned and manipulated consciously to fulfill a pre-established conception.
Within this context, the element of optical illusions served an invaluable role for Dalí. His works from the late 1930s and 1940s revolve around a sophisticated play of image and meaning, brilliantly displayed in the present work and others from this period (fig. 2). Dawn Ades writes, '...Dalí increasingly persuaded himself of the imperative to make his paintings as convincing, deceptive and illusionistic as possible. His aim, put crudely, was to give form to the formless and invisible, to dreams, reveries, delusions, desires and fears. His ambition, both in what he was aware of depicting and what remained fortuitous and concealed was to make the world of the imagination "as objectively evident, consistent, durable, as persuasively, cognoscitively, and communicably thick as the exterior world of phenomenal reality." His desire to give substance to the phantoms destined always to remain virtual led to one of the most sustained investigations into the relationship between vision, perception and representation of the century' (D. Ades, 'Dalí's Optical Illusions', in Dalí's Optical Illusions (exhibition catalogue), Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum; Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden & Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 2000, p. 10).
Trilogy of the Desert revolves around the appropriation of Classical motifs - a tendency that dominated the artist's wartime œuvre. The classical standing female figure assumes the status of an icon for Dalí at this time, her visage often conflated with that of Gala. In 1936, he disects the famous Greek statue of Venus de Milo into a series of drawers. Another work from 1936 imported the Three Graces into the desert, Têtes de fleurs retrouvant sur la plage la dépouille d'un piano à queue (fig. 3). In the present work he situates Venus in a loving embrace with the figure of Apollo, a combination of art historical rather than mythological motifs.
Robert Descharnes and Gilles Néret view the works of 1946 as a revelatory combination of classical motif and dual-image functions: 'Dalí's avowal of a classicism that served to reinforce his fantasies and leitmotifs became clearer from one work to the next. The masterly pictures he was painting were attempts to create a synthesis out of his craft and his ideas. Dalí's principle of seeing landscapes through architectural or landscape gaps (which might also have dual image functions) was part of this endeavor' (Robert Descharnes & Gilles Néret, op. cit., p. 395). As an apotheosis of these central preoccupations for the artist, Oasis assumes a vital position in the Surrealist canon.
Fig. 1, Salvador Dalí, Paysage avec jeune fille sautant à la corde, 1936, oil on canvas, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
Fig. 2, Salvador Dalí, Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach, 1938, oil on canvas, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut
Fig. 3, Salvador Dalí, Têtes de fleurs retrouvant sur la plage la dépouille d'un piano à queue, 1936, oil on canvas, The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida
Oil on canvas
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Trilogy of the Desert, Three New Paintings by Salvador Dalí, 1946
Palm Beach, Society of the Four Arts, 1949
36 by 59cm. 14 1/8 by 23 1/4 in.
Robert Descharnes & Gilles Néret, Salvador Dalí 1904-1989, The Paintings, Cologne, 1997, vol. I, no. 898, illustrated p. 395 (titled Desert Trilogy – Apparition of a Couple in the Desert)
William Lightfoot Schultz, New York
Private Collection, USA (acquired from the above. Sold: Christie's, London, 8th December 1999, lot 62)
Private Collection (purchased at the above sale)
Acquired from the above by the present owner